Bills seek to ban Native American mascots at public schools

By SAM DRYSDALE

State House News Service

Published: 11-23-2023 2:50 PM

BOSTON — The 23 schools in Massachusetts that use an image of an Indigenous person as their school mascot would have to start looking for new names and logos under a pair of bills that advocates hope will get passed this session.

After years of contentious debate over Native American mascots in school districts, some Indigenous activists say it’s time to take the decision out of local hands.

“Unfortunately, today, the remaining schools with Native mascots are stubbornly attached to controlling our Native identities, which they’re using against our permission,” said Rhonda Anderson, a Iñupiaq-Athabascan Native American and western Massachusetts representative on the state Commission on Indian Affairs.

The bills (H 477/S 245), filed by Rep. Brandy Fluker Oakley and Sen. Jo Comerford, would require that the Board of Elementary and Secondary Education bar Massachusetts public schools from using an athletic team or school mascot name that represents or is associated with Native Americans, or denigrates any racial, ethnic, gender or religious group. It includes a carve-out to allow Indigenous tribes to use a Native-related name or logo, as well as for tribes to give explicit consent for a school to use their name.

When Anderson began advocating to remove these mascots from schools 25 years ago, there were more than 90 districts in Massachusetts that used a Native American on their logo, she said. Today, there are 23 schools in the state that continue to use these mascots, nicknames or logos, according to the New England Anti-Mascot Coalition, including the Billerica Memorial High School Indians, The High School of Commerce in Springfield’s Red Raiders and the Middleborough High School Sachems.

Foxborough is the latest town to wade into the controversial debate over using an image of a Native American, which looked similar to the now-defunct Washington Redskins logo. The Foxborough School Committee voted in October to change the image of the Indigenous person, but to keep the name “Warriors.”

“Most of the Indigenous mascots classify us as warriors and things of that nature,” said Faries Gray, a Massachusett Native American. “Classifying us as a warrior-class society — which we were not, if we were, there would be no colonists here because we would have went to war against all of them ... My tribe, we were primarily fishermen and farmers. I don’t see one school within this commonwealth calling themselves the farmers or the fisherman.”

During a recent Education Committee hearing on the bill, Kelly Pease, a Westfield Republican, questioned Gray and Anderson.

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“This is, for a long time having mascots, and you think it should be a state law not decided at the community level? And you think it’s racism?” Pease began.

Anderson jumped in, “It is a racial group that’s being identified, yes.”

Pease continued, “And you don’t think it’s a time to highlight your heritage and make it educational because the school is looking at it?”

“Those mascots are not of our choosing. They’re not who we are, we are over 576 different — vastly different — communities and cultures, and what’s being used is a stereotype,” Anderson replied.

Sen. Jason Lewis, who co-chairs the Education Committee, said he was proud of his daughter for being part of an effort at Winchester High School to retire a “Sachems” mascot.

Lewis said students and teachers who start these movements often face bullying from other students, School Committee members and parents. He thanked the Indigenous advocates who came to testify before the committee.

Similar bills have been filed every session since 2017.

“Mascots are typically assigned to animals or mythical creatures, but we’re living people,” Gray said. “We’re not somebody of the past. We’re living people — we’re not mythical creatures and we’re not animals.”